Strada Interim CEO Tom Dawson shared a story Wednesday that crystalizes how much the realm of education philanthropy has changed — and how quickly that change happened.

A little more than a decade ago, Dawson worked for a foundation when it engaged in its first “program-related investment” — the funding of a program with demonstrated success meeting a need the foundation wanted to address. “We thought, Oh, my goodness, this is so revolutionary and innovative,” Dawson recalled. “There were so few foundations that did them.”

He left that job to work at a for-profit company. And when he returned to philanthropic work a few years later, he said, he discovered philanthropy had shifted toward the kind of investments that had seemed so novel just a few years earlier.

From acquisitions to venture investments in for-profit companies to programmatic grants, the work of education philanthropy has shifted substantially in recent years. On Wednesday, Dawson joined other education philanthropy leaders for “New Models for Education Philanthropy,”

a panel discussion at the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego. Moderated by Guild Education Senior Strategist Michael Horn, the panel also included Angela Jackson, managing partner at New Profit; Katy Knight, president and executive director at Siegel Family Endowment; and Ralph Taylor-Smith, managing director at ETS Strategic Capital.

The leaders discussed how traditional categories of grant-giving and impact investing are changing — and what brought on the shift. And they shared how these new models work across nonprofits, businesses, and government to create and execute solutions that resolve the vexing and entrenched problems inherent in the education system.

“Whether it’s early childhood, education-to-career, K-12 education, all of those areas are so fragmented, and so I think foundations realized … that the single approach around grant allocation just wasn’t getting the job done,” Dawson said. “And so they began to experiment with new ways of allocating capital.”

Together, the leaders outlined three ways they approach education philanthropy to ensure their work is relevant and meeting modern needs:

 

COLLABORATE, COLLABORATE, COLLABORATE

More than ever, education philanthropies are working with like-minded organizations to maximize impact.

“When we’re looking at investments, we’re also looking at co-investors,” said Jackson, whose work at New Profit focuses on funding entrepreneurs seeking to bridge the equity divide in not only education but also health and other sectors. “We’re going to need more collaboration and more aligned investors.”

Knight, of the Siegel Family Foundation, suggested that a different type of collaboration shapes her foundation’s work — and the democratization of tech tools is allowing local leaders to emerge and join conversations leading to tools and solutions.

“We need to pull together the tool builders and the teachers and the administrators,” she said. “We need to have a conversation in the community that leads to collaboration.”

 

SEEK OUT SOLUTIONS THAT ARE EFFECTIVE, SCALABLE, AND EQUITABLE

The best solutions get results, are easily replicated, and benefit the learners who need them most. Yet every education philanthropy must work through gray areas when determining which investments have potential to serve their mission and help the largest number of people in the most meaningful way.

“We should be willing to accept that to reach a certain level of scale, there might need to be an efficacy tradeoff,” Dawson said. “We accept that as a given.”

Horn, the moderator, pointed out a perceived “tension and tradeoff” between efficacy and scale. If a program is effective for a few, can the learnings be replicated widely? Or if results can be easily replicated, is it acceptable for them to be less effective?

“If you’re looking for outsized return, you end up with potential for products that reach a lot of kids but don’t do a lot for them,” Knight said.

Jackson said solutions that are scalable across the largest number of individuals can end up achieving success, but at the cost of leaving out populations needing support.

“It’s scale. It’s efficacy. But it’s also equity,” Jackson said. “When they’re trying to scale, they’re trying to get paying customers. Scale for scale’s sake, if you’re not reaching people at the margins, we’re not interested in investing in that.”

 

EMBRACE PHILANTHROPY’S ROLE IN CREATING SOLUTIONS GOVERNMENT CAN’T — AND TAKING RISKS BUSINESSES WON’T

The education-philanthropy leaders agreed their role is to take chances that push innovation forward and create a better education system. Knight said she thinks philanthropy should be “society’s risk fund.”

“There needs to be a certain amount of risk and innovation,” Dawson said. “If our sector doesn’t do it, no one else will. The private sector will — but they don’t share our goals and motivations.”

Taylor-Smith challenged panelists to consider whether they would be able to point to any demonstrated systems change if they were to reconvene in two or three years.

“One would like to think we’re less risk-averse, but we’re not,” Taylor-Smith said. “We’re an extremely risk-averse community, and change is really slow. The issue is not the money. There’s lots of money sitting at this table right now. It’s the willingness to take risks and to execute.”

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